My first jury trial was in 1983, the same year that I started practicing law. I was the attorney for a young woman who had been charged in federal criminal court for embezzling money from a local bank. After that case, I continued to accept criminal defense cases for several years. In one of those cases, I represented a young man who was charged with a serious crime. The evidence against him was overwhelming, and he was found guilty of the crime. At the sentencing hearing, he told the judge that he had discovered God, and he was a changed man. The judge responded to his comment by stating,
There are a lot of men who come into this courtroom who know that they are going to be sentenced to several years in prison. They tell me they have found the Lord and that they have changed. I have no way of knowing what is in the minds and hearts of those men. But for those who claim that they have found God, my hope is that they will use their time in prison to develop and strengthen their faith in God, so that when they are released from prison, they will know what they should do when they find themselves in difficult situations, and who they should turn to when they are tempted.
After the judge finished his comment, he sentenced my client to more than 10 years in prison. I thought about that client recently, while I was saying one of my morning prayers.
One of my morning rituals is that after I step out of the shower, I have a list of prayers that I say while I am getting ready for work. The first four prayers that I say are the Act of Contrition, Act of Love, Act of Hope, and Act of faith.
It was after I said the Act of Love that I thought about the client I just told you about. As a reminder, here are the words to the Act of Love:
O my God, I love Thee above all things with my whole heart and soul because Thou art all good and worthy of all my love. I love my neighbor as myself for the love of Thee. I forgive all who have injured me, and I ask forgiveness for all whom I have injured.
The part of the prayer that triggered the memory of my client was, “I love my neighbor as myself for the love of Thee.” When I said that part of the prayer, two questions popped into my mind: How much do I love myself? and How am I to know if I love someone more than I love myself?
My next thought was that most people who end up in prison are there because they failed to love their neighbor as themselves. If they had loved their neighbor as much as they loved themselves, they would not have committed the crime that put them in prison.
On several occasions, at the annual silent men’s retreats I attended during the 1990s, with Fr. John Hardon as the retreat master, he told us,
There is no person who loves us more than we love ourselves. We are much more forgiving of ourselves than we are of others. We need to keep that in mind if we are sincere about following our Lord’s command to love our neighbor as ourselves.
If I asked you how much you love yourself, how would you answer?
There’s a passage in the New Testament where a man asked Jesus what the greatest commandment was. In addition to telling the man what the greatest commandment was, Jesus also told him what the second greatest commandment was:
But when the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they came together. And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?” And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And the second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22:34-39).
Did God the Father love us the same as He loved Himself? The only Apostle who was at the foot of the cross when our Lord died gave us the answer to that question:
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son…” (John 3:16).
No discussion about love would be complete without considering what St. Paul said about love:
Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Love never ends; as for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. (1 Cor. 13:4-8).
Can you pick out the most important phrase from St. Paul’s lesson about love? It was “Love never ends.”
St. Paul could have continued by saying, “Love never had a beginning. Why? Because God is love and He had no beginning, and He has no end. Therefore, love always was and always will be.”
I’ve never told anyone this, but every evening before I leave my office to go home, I play a song that I have bookmarked on YouTube — “The Power of Love” by Huey Lewis & The News. That song became popular after it was featured in the 1985 blockbuster movie, Back to the Future. Toward the end of the song are the following lyrics:
They say that all in love is fair
Yeah, but you don’t care
But you know what to do
When it gets hold of you
And with a little help from above
You feel the power of love
The key phrase is “And with a little help from above.” In reality, we need a lot of help from above before we are able to love someone. Before we can truly love a person, we have to first develop a great love for God.
It is the failure to love God and the inordinate love of self that leads to all sin, including the original sin of Adam and Eve.
In Hell, which is completely devoid of God’s love and grace, there is no love. It is impossible for the souls in Hell to love. When the angel Gabriel appeared to the Blessed Virgin Mary, he told her that she was full of grace. The souls in Hell are full of hatred, anger, pain, and revenge. The souls in Heaven are full of love, happiness, joy, and contentment.
Love is possible for those of us on Earth because unlike Hell, God has not withdrawn His love and grace from the Earth. While true love is only possible for those of us who love God, a certain degree of love is possible for those who do not love or believe in God because of the people around them who love God and benefit from His love and grace.
Every year we celebrate Valentine’s Day, which is set aside as a day to show our love and affection toward people who are special to us. But for those of us who do our best to follow the two great commandments of our Savior, every day should be like Valentine’s Day.
Our ability to truly love others is a gift from God that is a mystery that nobody can fully understand.
Food for thought for those of us who would like to celebrate God’s love every day of the year.
Happy Valentine’s Day!